How to Stay Focused at Work
We all know we should stay focused at work, but distractions are an ever-present danger of the modern office. Social media trains us to revisit our favorite platforms for that sweet dopamine fix. Our smartphones won’t be quiet about the latest news. And, let’s face it, that video featuring funny kittens sounds way more enticing than revising a presentation on laminar seals.
Diversions like these drain our focus because they are designed to prime our brains. Luckily, understanding a bit about how our brains work is the best tool for learning how to maintain focus on the job.
Speaking technically, humans are incapable of multitasking. What we think of as multitasking is actually something called “task switching.” Put simply, our brains must disengage the neurons used for one task before firing up the neurons used for another. While our brains perform the switch in a tenth of a second, our conscious focus takes much longer to reassert itself, and the switching costs add up the more our tasks interrupt each other. In fact, studies have shown people who are interrupted take 50 percent longer to complete a task and make up to 50 percent more errors.
This fact is key when developing strategies for focus at work. Use it to your advantage and try to focus on one attention-demanding task at a time. If this isn’t realistic given your job requirements, plan your day to reduce the number of tasks you have to take on at any time.
Set Goals, Stay Focused
Before you can focus on work, you need to figure out what to focus on. Pull out your calendar and schedule your day/week around concrete goals. Be as specific as possible. Don’t plan to work on the grant this Monday. Plan to write its introduction Monday morning between 9 and 11 a.m.
And don’t forget to set realistic goals. Growing despondent because you whiffed an impractical goal will shift your focus from work to beating yourself up, which is incredibly unproductive.
No Work Triathlons
Like any muscle, your brain tires the more you work it, causing mental exhaustion. To facilitate focus, schedule your work day into chunks of 45–60 minutes each. In between these chunks, take a break and let your mental energy recoup by doing something relaxing. Go for a walk, have a chat, or watch that funny kittens video we enticed you with earlier.
Think of it this way: you couldn’t focus if you had to run a triathlon every day, so your nine-to-five shouldn’t feel like one.
Focus on the Hard Stuff First
You may think completing low-attention tasks will prime your brain to focus on the harder stuff later. Strike that, and reverse it.
Your brain performs at its peak early in the workday—again, imagine your muscles at the beginning of a workout compared with the end. If a task demands concentration or creativity, be sure to tackle it while you have a healthy reserve of mental strength. Relegate those low-attention tasks to your burnout hours.
Keep a Clean Work Space
Messy workspaces provide all sorts of hindrances to focusing. Shifting through disorganized paperwork switches your neurons from the job at hand to assaying the flood of new information on each page. And nothing distracts like the mystery of the scarlet stain. Chicken cacciatore?
We recommend doing a quick reorganization at the end of each day and performing a thorough cleaning of your workspace biweekly.
Easier said than done, right? The Internet is a conditioning minefield, and few modern jobs allow for a complete disconnect.
One strategy is to download an Internet blocker. These programs can whitelist the sites you need for work while blacklisting all others. You should also set aside a specific chunk of time to deal with emails and messages, instead of answering them furiously as they come in. And if possible, try to turn off any devices that beep, chime, or otherwise yell at you to pay attention any time something new happens.
Focus on the Work, Not the World
Mastered your digital space? Now there’s only reality to deal with. Office chatter, requests for help, random client calls: There can be no end to the interruptions.
If things become too much, try relocating to a space that limits their potential, such as a cafe or conference room. (Sometimes you wanna be where nobody knows your name.) If that’s not possible, a pair of headphones and music can help. Just be sure your music doesn’t interrupt your focus with the urge to sing along. Concert music is a solid concentration choice.
Your brain is part of your body, so it operates at its best when the rest of you is happy, healthy, and stress free. Health can be a complicated subject, but some focus-friendly practices include:
- Eat regular meals with fewer processed carbs and sugars and more vegetables and fruit.
- Get in 30 minutes of aerobics a day (even if just a brisk walk).
- Sleep for 7–9 hours a night.
- Practice breathing exercises for 10 minutes a day.
Don’t try to upend your entire routine with unrealistic goals; start small and work your way up. Even these tiny lifestyle changes can generate a positive focus feedback.
As you can see, to truly increase your focus at work, you need to practice positive habits both on and off the clock. It's worth it, though, as the benefits of learning to focus reach beyond office productivity. Mindful focus can help you live a happier, healthier life and is a major component to that elusive work/life balance.